I saw the free souls of poets,
The loftiest bards of past ages strode before me,
The immortal poets of Asia and Europe have done their work and pass’d to other spheres.
A work remains—the work of surpassing all they have done,
The work of my life, begun in ripen’d youth and steadily pursued,
Never even for one brief hour abandoning my task—to serve in song.
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will, an imperious conviction,
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words,
The commands of my nature as total and irresistible as those which make the sea flow, or the globe revolve,
A message from the heavens whispering to me even in sleep—
These sped me on,
My commission obeying, to question it never daring:
Make the works,
Make full-blooded, rich, flush, natural works,
Do not go into criticisms or arguments at all.
Unstopp’d and unwarp’d by any influence outside the soul within me, I have had my say entirely my own way, and put it unerringly on record,
Regardless of the old conventions, my form has strictly grown from my purports and facts, and is the analogy of them, under the great laws, following only its own impulses.
The great laws take and effuse without argument—
I am of the same style, for I am their friend,
I love them quits and quits, I do not halt and make salaams.
It seems to be quite clear and determined that I should concentrate my powers on “Leaves of Grass”—
Not diverting any of my means, strength, interest to the construction of anything else—of any other book;
I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me.
I consider “Leaves of Grass” and its theory experimental—because a good deal, after all, was an experiment, under the urge of powerful, quite irresistible, perhaps wilful influences, to see how such things will eventually turn out.
“Leaves of Grass” must be called not objective, but profoundly subjective,
“I know” runs through them as a perpetual refrain.
(Do you think I have written all this for my own good?
Well, perhaps I have, but not in the way you imagine—
I do not say these things for a dollar or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat.)
The main object of my poetry is simply to put a person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in America,) freely, fully, and truly on record,
To express the eternal bodily, composite, cumulative, natural character of one man’s identity, ardors, observations, faiths, and thoughts,
A common individual New World private life—its birth and growth, its goings and comings—esthetic, moral, social, and political idiosyncrasies—
And to exploit that personality, identified with place and date, in a far more candid and comprehensive sense than any hitherto poem or book.
My enterprise and questionings positively shaped themselves: How best can I express my own distinctive era and surroundings, America, democracy?
I saw that the trunk and centre whence the answer was to radiate must be an identical body and soul, a personality—the determin’d cartoon of personality that dominates, or rather stands behind, all of “Leaves of Grass,” like the unseen master and director of the show—
Which personality, after many considerations and ponderings, I deliberately settled should be myself—indeed could not be any other.
I am told it is mainly autobiographic, and even egotistic after all—
The unavoidable egotism, which I finally accept, and am contented so.
I feel more settled than ever to adhere to my own theory, and exemplify it;
I will not reject any theme or subject because the treatment is too personal.
The book is autobiographic at bottom,
Launched from the fires of myself, my spinal passions, joys, yearnings, doubts, appetites, etc.,
As a type however for those passions, joys, workings, etc. in all the human race, at least as shown under modern and especially American auspice,
My enclosing purport being to express the eternal bodily composite, cumulative, natural character of one’s self,
To articulate and faithfully express in literary or poetic form, and uncompromisingly, my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual, and ӕsthetic personality,
In the midst of, and tallying, the momentous spirit and facts of its immediate days, and of current America,
To illustrate America—illustrate the whole, not merely sections.
Taken as a unity, “Leaves of Grass,” true to its American origin, is the song of a great composite democratic individual, male or female,
(I want them to be the poems of women entirely as much as men,)
A song of the great pride of man in himself.
Like all modern tendencies, it has direct or indirect reference continually to you or me, to the central identity of everything, the mighty ego;
It must place in the van, and hold up at all hazards, the banner of the divine pride of man in himself.
This book to be the poem of average identity, (of yours, whoever you are, now reading these lines,)
Infinitesimals out of my life, and many a life—
The lights and shades and sights and joys and pains and sympathies common to humanity,
The great drama going on within myself and every human being—myself, typical, before all—
That is what I have been after,
To make a type-portrait for living, active, worldly, healthy personality, joyful and potent, and modern and free, male and female, through the long future,
To present the portraiture or model of a sound, large, complete, intellectual and spiritual man and woman, receiving its impetus from the democratic spirit, nature, the passions, pride,
To combine tenderness and trembling, sympathetic manliness with strength and perfect reason,
To suggest the substance and form of a large, sane, perfect human being.
This is undoubtedly its essential purpose and its key.
I raise a voice to exalt the present and the real.
I have unconsciously sought, by indirections at least as much as directions, to express the whirls and rapid growth and intensity of the United States and largely the spirit of the whole current world, my time, for I feel that I have partaken of that spirit;
I would sing, and leave out or put in, quite solely with reference to a subjective and contemporary point of view appropriate to ourselves alone, and to our new genius and environments, different from anything hitherto.
Poetry: Where else indeed may we so well investigate the causes, growths, tally-marks of the time—the age’s matter and malady—diagnosing this disease called humanity?
But I will take all those things that produce this condition and make them produce as great characters as any.
The distinctive and ideal type of Western character (consistent with the operative political and even money-making features of United States’ humanity) has not yet appear’d;
I have allow’d the stress of my poems from beginning to end to assist it.
The whole drift of my book is to form a new race of fuller, yet unknown characters, men and women, for the United States to come;
The model of a new man, the modern man, I sing—
The pages of the lesson having writ to train myself.
One main genesis-motive of the “Leaves” was my conviction that the crowning growth of the United States is to be spiritual and heroic. To help start and favor that growth—or even to call attention to it, or the need of it—is the beginning, middle, and final purpose of the poems.
The deepest moral, social, political purposes of America are the underlying endeavors at least of my pages.
While the pieces were put forth and sounded especially for my own country, the substances and subtle ties behind them, and which they celebrate, belong equally to all countries. And the ambition to waken with them, and in their key, the latent echoes of every land, I here avow.
I am not sure but my main and chief, however indefinite, claim for any page of mine would be its derivation, or seeking to derive itself, from the average quality of the American bulk, the people, and getting back to it again—to invigorate democracy.
Perhaps the chief and final clue to these poems is the determined attempt or resolution to put democracy into an imaginative and poetical statement—
Nay it is certain that this is the underlying purpose.
This determined resolution or idea pervades the whole like some indigenous scent, and, to a fine nostril, will be detected in every page,
Every page of my book—we might almost say every line—emanates democracy, absolute, unintermitted, without the slightest compromise,
As if, somehow, a great coming and regnant democracy had here given genesis to every page and line.
O Democracy, for you, for you I am trilling these songs,
The theme is really of the first importance—and all the rest can be broached and led to through it, as well as any other way.
From another point of view “Leaves of Grass” is avowedly the song of sex and amativeness, the life of flesh and blood and physical urge, and even animalism—all lifted into a different light and atmosphere.
I do not chant in my poems the divinity of the brain and spirit of a man only, but the divinity of the animal.
One deep purpose has underlain the plan of my poems—and that has been the religious purpose,
For you to share with me two greatnesses, and a third one rising inclusive and more resplendent,
The greatness of love and democracy, and the greatness of religion.
Solely to drop in the earth the germs of a greater religion,
To fill the gross the torpid bulk with vital religious fire, to free, arouse, dilate,
Chants each for its kind I sing;
This basic purpose has never been departed from in the composition of my verses.
I am held to the heavens and all the spiritual world,
After what they have done to me, suggesting themes.
The religious element, the most important of any, seems to me more indebted to poetry than to all other means and influences combined—
In a very profound sense religion is the poetry of humanity, and neither could exist without the other.
A poetry worthy the immortal soul of man, while absorbing materials and the shows of nature, will, above all, have a freeing, fluidizing, expanding, religious character, exulting with science, fructifying the moral elements, and stimulating aspirations and meditations on the unknown.
Religious canticles, hymns of extasy and religious fervor, perhaps ought to be the brain, the living spirit—elusive, indefinite, indescribable—of all the “Leaves of Grass.”
Such poems only—in which the religious tone, the consciousness of mystery, the recognition of the future, of the unknown, of Deity over and under all, and of the divine purpose, are never absent, but indirectly give tone to all—exhibit literature’s real heights and elevations, towering up like the great mountains of the earth.
In literature we shall roam lost without redemption, except we seek ensemble through it,
And let sprout the actual fibre of things, whatever they may be—
Every poem of anything must enclose and express the spirituality and joyousness of that thing.
Add the word modernness, and you begin to unlock “Leaves of Grass.”
The profoundest service that poems or any other writings can do for their reader is not merely to satisfy the intellect, or supply something polish’d and interesting, nor even to depict great passions, or persons or events, but to fill him with vigorous and clean manliness, religiousness, and give him good heart as a radical possession and habit.
I have never so much cared to feed the esthetic or intellectual palates—but if I could arouse from its slumbers that eligibility in every soul for its own true exercise! If I could only wield that lever!
As I ponder in silence,
Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,
For them, for them have I lived, in them my work is done,
My life and recitative, fitful as motley-tongues of flame,
Inseparably twined and merged in one—combining all.
Candidly and dispassionately reviewing all my intentions, I feel that they were creditable—
And I accept the result, whatever it may be.
I am very, very much satisfied and relieved that the thing, in the permanent form it now is, looks as well and reads as well (to my own notion) as I anticipated;
I like it, I think, first rate.
Though I see well enough its numerous deficiencies and faults, though I think I could improve much upon it now, I don’t worry about how much better it ought to be,
I am content to let it rest, to let it go as it is, without the least wish to meddle with it any more.
After 33 years of hackling at it, all times and moods of my life, fair weather and foul, all parts of the land, and peace and war, young and old,
The wonder to me that I have carried it on to accomplish as essentially as it is.
I consider the point that I have positively gain’d a hearing, to far more than make up for any and all other lacks and withholdings,
Essentially, that was from the first, and has remain’d throughout, the main object.
The writing and rounding of “Leaves of Grass” has been the comfort of my life since it was originally commenced; my book has been to me the reason for being;
I should be willing to jaunt the whole life over again, with all its worldly failures and serious detriments, deficiencies and denials, to get the happiness of retraveling that part of the road.
Then falter not O book, sent out into this garden the world,
Purpos’d I know not whither, yet ever full of faith,
Speed on, chant on, fulfill your destiny.